Sunday, April 28, 2019

Somewhere over the rainbow - the shifting perspectives of the Horizon Report

The full version of this year's Horizon Report is now available, published by Educause who rescued the publication from the threat of extinction last year. Each year a global panel of experts nominate trends in educational technology that will make an impact in the short, medium and long term and also identify key challenges facing higher education in the coming years. The report is often criticised since the same technologies seem to move backwards and forwards on the horizon and sometimes even disappear for a while before returning. This year's report is no exception with mobile learning predicted to go mainstream in the next couple of years, having been a feature of several reports in the past. Many other technology trends such as learning analytics, gaming, virtual reality and blended learning have been on the horizon for quite a while but somehow never really make the transition to mainstream practice.

Probably the most interesting feature of this year's report is a section, Fail or scale? (pages 33-39), that examines three trends that have featured in previous reports but have still not become an integral part of higher education practice: adaptive learning, virtual and augmented reality and gaming/gamification. Three experts present their analysis of why these phenomena haven't made the transition and all three analyses have some common ground. All of them have very sound cases for adoption but they all demand major changes to existing structures and models. Bryan Alexander's analysis of gaming in education makes a comment that could well be applied to many other technology trends featured in the Horizon Report over the years:

A new technology—especially one that requires significant research and training—needs to be able to work across the curriculum and in sufficient numbers to merit institutional investment. Faculty members can carry such a technology forward to some extent, but only if they are knowledgeable and engaged with it and if they can sufficiently support the hardware or software. Otherwise the technology will only appear at best in a small segment of a college or university.

Some technology applications have made the transition and become essential elements of the university's operations, such as the learning management system, lecture capture and anti-plagiarism software. It could be claimed that the reason that these applications have succeeded is that they have not challenged the traditional structures and models of higher education, they have simply added a digital version of what we do already (ie. lecture, work in defined classes and classrooms). The potential of many other technologies that so often feature in Horizon reports can only be realised by making radical changes to the way we teach and learn. As a result, they often get bogged down by all the other changes that have to take place before they can be fully implemented. Many new technologies require significant investment to realise their full potential, as outlined by Nicole Weber in her analysis of adaptive learning technologies:

With so much potential, why has adaptive learning not scaled quickly? One of the largest challenges is the investment (e.g., time, money, resources, and vision) needed to implement and scale these courseware products.

In the case of virtual and augmented reality (mixed reality), Kevin Ashford-Rowe highlights the barriers of the hardware required to implement the solutions successfully. In short, the inconvenience and expense of the VR visors make it impractical as a mainstream technology:

In his February 2018 article “3 Reasons Augmented Reality Hasn’t Achieved Widespread Adoption,” AJ Agrawal, argues that—in this order—it is due to a combination of ergonomics, basic utility, and corrective lenses. In short, no matter the benefits, “no one wants to wear a pair of goggles on their head during daily routine” (ergonomics); “even the most mind-blowing AR glasses won’t matter until they look ‘normal’ enough for everyday wear” (basic utility); and, given that three-quarters of the US population need corrective lenses, “it goes without saying that smart glasses need this option [corrective lenses].” He also points out an important distinction that should be made between VR and AR—AR possesses a natural advantage in that the information being displayed is integrated with what is in front of the user.

My conclusion here is that maybe we should not simply criticise reports like Horizon for changing their predictions and timescales but instead look at why it is so hard to change traditional educational structures. Tradition is the hardest barrier to break and it takes many years for any innovation to break through. The idea that we can see the impact of technological innovation in terms of such a short time scale as the next five years is probably flawed.

Read more on this in an article in Campus Technology, 3 Ed Tech Trends Stuck on the Horizon (and Why).

Creating informal online meetings

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the missing link in online conferences; the opportunity to network and discuss during mingle parties, coffee breaks and sightseeing tours. This week my Austrian colleague, David Röthler, and I arranged an experimental webinar to show a variety of tools and methods for creating such informal meeting spaces. The recorded webinar can be seen above. The idea was to showcase a few of the many platforms and tools for more effective virtual meetings and collaboration and discuss the opportunities they offer for more informal interaction.

We ran most of the session in the web-meeting platform Zoom, including a virtual coffee break where we randomly created groups of 4-5 participants who had all grabbed a cup of tea or coffee before the start of the meeting. This strategy could be used at many online events as an option before, during of after the session to let participants socialise and reflect together. Many new opportunities could arise from such chance meetings.

One of the platforms we highlighted was a virtual office solution called Remo. We were lucky to have the founder of the platform, Ho Yin Cheung, in our group and he invited our participants into Remo to continue discussing in a new environment. As a result our session ended in a slightly messy overlap where some of the group was already discussing in Remo, some were still in Zoom and some were in both spaces. The advantage of Remo (and similar solutions such as Sococo and Walkabout) is that participants can choose to sit in an office, a meeting room, a lobby or even an auditorium depending on what they want to do. When two or more sit in the same room they are able to have a video meeting with screensharing and chat. In this way people can easily change rooms, join different discussions and invite others to join. Or you can simply work alone in a room but indicate that your are available for consultation if needed. Maybe a good way to have a virtual mingle party for an online conference.

Our guided city tour had to be rather brief to fit in with our short time slot but David was able to go out on the roof and show us a fine view of Salzburg castle and the monastery where some scenes of the famous movie, Sound of Music, was filmed. A tour guide can be filmed with a mobile device mounted on a gimbal for stability and show participants around a city, allowing remote participants the chance to ask questions either by audio or in a chat. One of our participants made the exciting suggestion of offering a variety of city tours with conference participants offering to lead a tour around their own city for a small group. The evening programme could then include a number of optional tours around several famous cities. An alternative could be a series of short virtual study visits to different universities (interesting new buildings and facilities), places of natural beauty (virtual bird watching perhaps?) and so on.

The technology is already in place and is developing rapidly and the only thing missing is the willingness of educators to start experimenting with new forms of online meetings. Of course it's not the same as meeting people in a physical space but considering the present climate crisis it may soon be the only option for international collaboration.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The dawn of the platform university - the tail wagging the dog?

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash
The implications of concepts such as platform capitalism or surveillance capitalism are unfolding week by week and higher education is no safe haven. For several years now we have been discussing the unbundling of higher education with the emergence of new models of course delivery, alternative credentials and new educational institutions. Educational platforms have enabled universities to offer digital solutions that would have been almost impossible to produce in-house but in return the platform companies have gained access to vast amounts of student data that can be analysed to develop new services to sell to the universities. For en excellent analysis of this process see Laura Czerniewicz's article in Educause Review, Unbundling and Rebundling Higher Education in an Age of Inequality.

However, the tables are now turning from the platform serving higher education to higher education serving the platform, according to an article by Ben Williamson on the UK higher education blog Wonkhe, The platform university: a new data-driven business model for profiting from HE.

The university is being transformed by platform technologies and companies. Although software platforms have been inside HE for years, HE is now moving inside the software platform. In the emerging platform university, more and more HE services are being delegated to software, algorithms, and automation. The business logic of platform capitalism has captured the academy, and the public role of the university has become a source of private financial gain.

Basically student data is valuable raw material to platform companies enabling them to develop more attractive services and attract advertisers. The article offers several examples of companies who are benefiting from this model, for example the  plagiarism detection platform that processes enormous amounts of student data in the form of all the essays and assignments it analyses every day. At the same time it would be extremely costly for institutions to develop and run such platforms themselves on a non-profit basis and so we depend more an more on commercial platforms. The danger, according to Williamson, is that the education sector is in danger of losing control.

Significant HE spending is now flowing from universities to platform providers, along with data they can use to their own advantage as market actors in an emerging sub-sector of platform capitalism. Unless universities act collectively in the sector’s own interests, they may find themselves positioned as educational product providers and data collection partners for the new HE platform industry.

Another new concept that has been discussed recently is platform literacy, mostly in terms of our individual awareness of the implications of using different social media platforms and tools. That literacy can now also apply at an institutional level in that we need to build an awareness of the affordances and implications of using external platforms for educational purposes.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Destination Indonesia

I have just returned from an extremely interesting exchange visit to one of my university's partner institutions, State University of Malang (Universitas Negeri Malang), in eastern Java, Indonesia. My job there was to lecture and run workshops for staff and students on digital skills development and online collaboration as well as discussing aspects of technology in education with management, teachers and administrators. I must complement my hosts for excellent hospitality and a very warm welcome. It's always fascinating to discuss with colleagues in different countries and finding that although we have different cultures, history, languages and educational context we have so much in common. Higher education all over the world is in the midst of a digitalisation process that is forcing us all to revise our concepts of teaching and learning. This process is never simple nor straightforward, with frequent barriers and backlashes to overcome. Once we start talking, we recognise each other's difficulties and hopefully can learn from each other.

Malang State University (MU) was founded in 1954 and has today over 33,000 students based on three campuses around the city of Malang. The city itself, with a population of over 3.5 million in the urban area, is known as a city of education and is home to four public universities and 13 private institutions. The main campus is modern, tidy and very green with tree-lined avenues and parks. The most striking feature of campus life is that virtually all students have a motorbike (indeed the whole country is swarming with motorbikes) and all the parking areas are packed with bikes. There is no real distance education so all students live on campus and are all in the age group 18-23 since it is extremely difficult to apply for the state universities once you get older due to government regulations. The private universities accept older students but many of them are rather expensive. So here university is still seen in its traditional role as as something you do when you are young in order to get a good job. Professional development for alumni seems to be rather rare and when offered students are expected to attend campus classes.

The lifelong learning sector is covered by the Indonesian open university, Universitas Terbuka, with about 460,000 students. Like many other open universities around the world it offers a variety of study options with digital and printed course literature, broadcast TV and radio and a network of support centres in major cities around the country, often in association with other universities. I had no contact with any representatives of this university but in the world's fourth most populous nation (population over 260 million) there is surely room for more institutions in the lifelong learning sector.

MU is in the midst of the familiar transition from a fragmented digital learning environment run mostly by enthusiasts to an integrated part of the university's infrastructure.
The learning management system (LMS) is an adapted version of Moodle run by the IT department but still only optional for teachers and as a result the uptake is only partial. Those teachers who do use the LMS need more training to use the more interactive features and the next challenge is to build a structure for offering support and professional development. This in turn requires management commitment and a digitalisation strategy covering all of the university's activites. We discussed many options for development including the introduction of educational technologists to support faculty, digitally skilled teachers acting as mentors for colleagues and ways of rewarding those who use digital tools in their teaching. Recognition of those who promote digitalisation, support colleagues and are innovative in their course design is a crucial driver. These issues are under discussion and it will be interesting to follow developments there in the future.

Another topic of interest was how to use technology to build bridges between the university's three campuses which, although they are all in the same region, are far enough from each other to limit contacts. Video conferencing is of course an interesting option to build bridges and there was interest in developing this in the near future. Transport between locations (up to 80 km) is not so easy with heavy congestion meaning that journeys of even a few kilometres take up to an hour. As a result the three campuses are largely self-contained.

Finally I must add that these are simply my impressions from a one week visit and not an attempt to provide a any overview of Indonesian higher education.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Indian MOOCs going mainstream

There are plenty of examples of universities offering credits for MOOCs and the key to awarding credentials is a formal proctored examination at the end of the course. In some countries this can be rather expensive but in India it seems that MOOCs are being integrated into the state higher education system. According to an article in Class Central, In India, MOOCs Are Now Part of the Education System, the state sponsored MOOC platform SWAYAM offers learners the chance to sit digital examinations at over 1000 regional centres all over the country and the successful candidates get valid credits that can count towards their degrees. This national coverage means that taking an exam becomes more accessible and although candidates pay around $15 to sit an exam the money is refunded if they pass.

Another interesting feature of SWAYAM's strategy is that teachers are given the financial incentive of up to $150 per hour of online teaching (recorded video) and other rates for material development, according to a remuneration model issued by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development. Universities can now allow students to take up to 20% of their degree programme as MOOCs thus offering greater flexibility and also recognising online education as an integral part of higher education in India. Universities can also offer other institutions' MOOCs and thereby widening their offer and making credit transfer more common.

Twice a year, institutions pick SWAYAM courses they’ll grant credit for in the upcoming term. Note that they may pick courses offered by other institutions, allowing them to tap into the strengths of schools nationwide to build richer curricula. For instance, they may leverage SWAYAM to offer high-demand courses for which they lack qualified instructors on campus.

The Indian government hopes that this scheme will help to widen participation in higher education by allowing new students to try a course, get credits and then hopefully move on from there into a full programme at a university. Maybe local centres can offer practical help to new student groups to help them learn the skills of online learning, for example in face-to-face introduction meetings to help them get started. None of this is particularly new since open universities have been working in this way for many years but it's refreshing to see that MOOC platforms can be integrated into the higher education system and offer alternative paths with tangible rewards.